Gina McCarthy: Friend of the Environment
By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
When Irish America interviewed Gina McCarthy in July, 2014, she already had a 30+ year career in the health and environmental sector, and was serving as the head of the EPA. During her term (2013-2017) McCarthy instituted regulations on carbon emissions for new vehicles and power plants, set air pollution standards for oil and gas drilling, and put in place a remarkable record of environmental achievements, spanning everything from climate change to endangered species and ocean protection.
Following her term as head of the EPA, McCarthy continued to be a strong supporter of climate action as president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) one of the country’s leading environmental groups. She was vocal on the fact that the Trump administration was not just rolling back the protections that were put in place during the Obama administration, but it is was rolling back protections going back to the Reagan administration.
President Biden, in his first hours in office, with the aid of McCarthy as his climate advisor, began to roll back much of the deregulatory actions of the Trump administration. “We know rejoining [Paris Agreement on climate change] won’t be enough, but along with strong domestic action, which this executive order kicks off, it is going to be an important step for the United States to regain and strengthen its leadership opportunities,” McCarthy told reporters.
With her new role in mind, we thought it appropriate to again visit the McCarthy interview from 2014. We see that then, as now, she was particularly concerned about climate change and its impact on human health.
Gina McCarthy was appointed Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in June 2013, after a 30-year career in the health and environmental sector. As head of the EPA, she called for all hands on deck in the climate fight. “The changes that you can see, and the future changes; if we don’t pay attention, will be very dramatic and I think we’ve let it go long enough. It’s really time for us to embrace that challenge. It’s time for us to act now,” she said.
If there was a sense of urgency to McCarthy’s mission, it’s because the National Climate Assessment released in June  showed hotter and longer summers, wildfires that started earlier and more often, record heat waves and floods, and longer allergy seasons. And that’s just the broad strokes. The report also showed how climate change is causing increased illnesses such as asthma and heart attacks, and it also investigates the economic impact of severe weather patterns that result in damage to infrastructure and property, loss of production, and delayed harvests.
McCarthy has been active on health and environmental issues since she was a college student. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 1971 with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Anthropology. (One of her heroes is Margaret Mead, the famous U.S. anthropologist and scientist).
In 1981, McCarthy received a joint Master of Science in Environmental Health Engineering and Planning and Policy from Tufts University. Her first job was in public health, where she saw firsthand how the environment affects health. She became engaged in remediation of hazardous waste sites – a career path that has led her all the way to the top job at the EPA.
I met with McCarthy at the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.. Her strong Boston accent is infused with attitude and resilience.
I came away from our interview thinking that if the climate fight is a tough one, McCarthy is the right person for the job. And the job is never over. Today, as Biden’s Climate Advisor she will continue to work “to ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water and the wild, and to prevent special interests from undermining public interests.”
Born in 1954, McCarthy (who is married to Kenneth McCarey, and has three children, Daniel, Maggie, and Julie), grew up in Canton, a Boston suburb largely populated with Irish. Her family saw public service as an honorable profession, and that’s what she grew up wanting to do.
How did growing up in Boston influence who you are today?
Boston is so much a part of my identity, as is Dorchester and South East. Growing up, I was surrounded by really hard working Irish people. My parents grew up in the Dorchester area. There were 15 kids in my father’s family. I was the youngest of 50 first cousins on my father’s side. So we really had a fun, big family when I was growing up. My mother was both English and Irish; my father was all Irish with roots in County Clare. Most of Canton was Irish who moved from Dorchester after WWII because it had all those small cape houses that they funded for veterans, and that’s how my father ended up moving there as well. He was a schoolteacher in the Boston school systems for 40 years.
So why do you do what you do?
I come from a very much service-oriented family. We have firemen, policemen, post office, school teachers – my sister, Elaine, is a middle school history teacher – and it’s not like someone told you that was the thing you had to do, but public service was seen as very much an honorable thing to do. And that’s what I grew up wanting to do; my parents’ gift to me was two things, public service and hard work. I don’t know anybody I grew up with that didn’t teach their kids that there was a larger meaning in life.
What was your first job?
My first job was when I was 13 so probably we should get more specific. My first professional job was working for a community health center in Rhode Island. My interest in public health grew into an interest in the environment when I began to realize just how much the environment impacts people’s health.
When my mother became ill, I returned home and I took a job as the first Board of Health agent in the town of Canton. It was restaurant inspections, septic system inspections, housing inspections. It was when all the hazardous waste laws were coming out. I had to look at water quality issues and it was eye opening and enlightening. I got engaged in remediation of hazardous waste sites, which have all the volatile organic contaminants you see in water supplies. I became very active representing boards of health, and eventually I started working for the environmental agency.
Can you talk about the latest National Climate Assessment, which looks at the impact of climate change on the U.S.?
This latest report, which came out in May 2014, covered different regions in the country and noted the kind of climate impacts that are already happening, as well as looking at how those could worsen over time if we don’t address the mitigation and reduce our carbon pollution. [The report] is very science based. It’s very analytic, and it’s very clear that climate impacts are already happening. And those range from increased sea level rise in the Northeast and rainfall, to the droughts in the West, to in the Midwest both floods and droughts in the same state at the same time.
And then further work has been going on both within the administration and outside to document the economic costs associated with all of these natural disasters. In 2012 alone, that cost ranged from 110 to 120 billion dollars. And so the costs for this are getting very extreme. Not just in terms of costs to lives and safety, but costs out of the pockets of American people.
Can you explain how climate impacts health?
Climate impacts public health very directly in a couple of different ways. Hotter weather creates ground level smog that is very damaging to people with lung diseases and kids and the elderly who have trouble breathing. Higher temperatures result in more ozone, as well as longer allergy seasons. It will trigger asthma attacks and make them more difficult to manage. It also has significant impact on the cardiac system as well as the overall pulmonary system. Right now one out of ten kids in the U.S. has chronic asthma.
And if you look at the projections that the scientists are giving us, we’re going to get 100-degree weather much more frequently. We all just have to face the fact that the environment has changed. It’s changed as a result of human influence that nobody intended. But now that we know, we can stop it from getting worse for our kids, and that’s really our moral obligation.
In terms of the Clean Power Plan, and reducing carbon emissions, do individual states take responsibility, and what sort of compliance is required?
Each state is required to achieve a particular standard. That standard is based on the tons of carbon pollution per megawatt hour of electricity that’s generated. So you can get there any way you want, but it’s actually going to measure the carbon that is coming out of the fossil fuel power plants. And so you can divert and start using other facilities like renewables more effectively, you can count nuclear generation, you can look at other ways of generating that electricity, or you can make your efficiency much better so that you’re producing more megawatts for every carbon molecule that you’re emitting, or ton that you’re emitting. Or you can take a look to make sure that you’re driving down electricity demand so that those units don’t continue to have to pump out as much electricity as they did before. We set the goal based on what we think is achievable, on the basis of what kind of technology choices [the states] have, what their infrastructure looks like, and what their opportunities are. And we allowed every state to develop a plan that’s best for them. So if [the state] can get these reductions cheaper doing it one way versus another, go for it. If there’s a lot of economic job growth opportunities in one strategy versus another, you’re able to do that. Every state then has to propose their plan to us, after the rule is finalized. EPA has to sign off on that plan, and the plan needs to come with enough analysis to tell us they’re actually going to be, in the end, achieving the reductions we’re looking for in terms of reductions in carbon pollution from their fossil fuel power plants. This is the way that EPA has regulated for 40 years. So we know how to do this.
A number of states, such as California and Connecticut, have already been very effective in reducing carbon pollution from the power sector as well as generating revenues for energy efficiency programs, which will keep those levels down. Over 1,000 mayors have signed climate pledges and are looking at reducing carbon emissions at the city and town level. Universities have also been leading the way. So when the President called on the EPA to do a rule that lowered carbon pollution we had all the data on actions that would be effective, reasonable, and practical. We built the Clean Power Plan on the backs of all of those states [that have reduced carbon pollution], recognizing that while they have done great work, there’s work that every state can do that would benefit that state and benefit us nationally and globally.
Governor Malloy of Connecticut has just signed a moratorium on fracking waste. Do you think that’s a good move?
Governor Dannel Malloy came in after I left (as Connecticut’s EPA commissioner), although I did a lot of work with him when he was Mayor in Stanford. He’s a really capable person and we did a lot of work together. He had a lot of significant brownfields [areas that have been contaminated by industrial waste] that he was redeveloping along his waterfront. It was really fun to work with him on that.
So do you think the ban on fracking waste is a good move?
I think it’s pretty clear that the abundance of inexpensive natural gas has been a significant opportunity to try to make a shift to a cleaner energy supply system, which is essential for climate change. And that’s really what the president has been signaling to us is to actively reduce carbon pollution that fuels climate change, from our power sector. And that’s what EPA’s major emphasis is right now.
So you’ve been traveling the U.S. – what have you experienced?
We’ve begun to realize that when you get out of Washington, D.C. and you talk to real people, that they’re worried about the climate. I’ve been to numerous places that have been hit by floods, and places that have been hit by wildfires. I was in California on the drought issue. I’ve been in Utah on the basis of the work that’s going on in Salt Lake City with the mayor doing all kinds of great climate efforts. I’ve been in Iowa talking to farmers, I was in Missouri yesterday, basically trying to have a good conversation about concerns that the agriculture community has about the Waters of the U.S., which is a proposal to define what waters are significant enough that they need to be federally regulated to ensure appropriate and safe drinking water and protection of natural resources – basically establishing the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.
It’s work that’s long overdue, but we’re going to be able to get it done because everyone sees drinking water as a vital resource. And in the United States, one out of three people, about 117 million, rely on really small streams that run only intermittently to feed the drinking water supply systems. So it’s not just the big rivers and the groundwater that people rely on. It’s the series of even smaller streams that we need to protect, or we’re going to lose an opportunity for that water to be pristine and suitable for drinking.
What do you say to the skeptics on climate change?
You know, the climate deniers are getting fewer and fewer, or else they’re getting less vocal. Polling now indicates that 70 percent of the people understand not just that climate change is happening but that it’s time to take action on it. So I’m seeing less and less skeptics. But what we always see at EPA – and EPA’s been around for 44 years – is that every time we put out a big rule like the big Clean Power Plan, which we just put out to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, or the Waters of the U.S. rule, you will find people who say the economy’s going to shut down, manufacturing’s going to stop. There’s always been a strong lobby of special interests groups that will want to make sure that their interests are protected. But we’ve found that every time [the critics] have over-estimated the cost, they’ve over estimated the negative impacts. And they certainly haven’t proven their case that by improving the environment we’re doing anything to impact the economy other than in a positive way.
We have decades of data that show every time we’ve moved forward environmentally we’ve seen commensurate improvement in the economy, and that we have not damaged anything. If you look at the Clean Air Act, over the past 44 years we’ve reduced air pollution by 70 percent, while the GDP has tripled. So there’s tremendous on-the-ground benefit as a result of protecting public health, and it keeps the United States as a place where people want to live and where you can breathe clean air.
Germany created half the power that they need based on solar panels last year. Do you think that Europe will help change attitudes here in the U.S. about solar energy?
Germany is doing amazing work. And I think the one message for us in the U.S. is that we have been moving in the right direction. A lot of people in a lot of states in a lot of cities and towns, and in the private sector, have been developing the technologies of the future. And the future is now!
You have renewables that are competitive – solar is competitive in the western U.S. These [renewables] are not “pie in the sky” anymore. So when you put out a rule that says you have to reduce carbon pollution from the power sector, it’s our hope that the states and the private sector will start investing heavily in these technologies of the future. We will be setting a standard that will be in place for 15 years. It will challenge people to think about whether they want to upgrade the technologies of the past, the 42 year old, 60-year old, 70-year old fossil fuel facilities and generators, or whether they want to invest in the technologies of the future. And we’re more than willing to bet, and I think this country has proven, that we’ll be looking forwards not backwards.
Will the recent announcement that the U.S. plans to cut back on carbon emissions help us internationally?
Yes. I just met with Edward Davey, the U.K. Secretary of State for Energy & Climate and he told me that the tone and tenor of the international discussions has changed, because of the U.S. proposal on clean power plants, and plan to cut back on carbon emissions. It shows a strong level commitment from [the U.S.] one of the largest greenhouse gases emitters, about making reductions that are necessary. And it’s sending the right international signal. As President Obama said when he put together this climate action plan, “We’ve got to reduce our carbon emissions. We’ve got to help our communities be more resilient, and we’ve got to influence the international community and be a leader there so we get the kind of global solution that this global challenge requires.”
What do you say to those who say you want to kill the coal mining industry?
We certainly will still have coal being mined, there’s no question about it. Even at the end of this 15-20 year period. But it will be cleaner, and we will be shifting to a significant amount of other power generation as well, in a way that’s going to reduce our carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005. And these are all not painful, these are investments, these are efficiencies, lowering waste. It’s going to be an economic benefit to move in this direction. Consumers will actually see their electricity bills go down at the end of this period. So we think everything about [Clean Power Proposal] sends the right signal for the U.S. both economically as well as environmentally. And we’ll be hopefully sending the right signal to our kids that we’re actually paying attention to their future.
Name some of the EPA achievements that you are proud of?
The president, during his first term, developed through the EPA, what is basically a greenhouse gas reduction target for the light duty vehicle rule, which is all of our cars and light trucks. And that’s going to double fuel economy by 2025. Also, our Energy Star program, which started as a greenhouse gas reduction strategy because we were driving manufacturers to make more efficient appliances. If you go to buy a dryer or a refrigerator you’ll see that blue Energy Star label. It provides consumers with information on how much they can save by spending a little more now, and it tells you how efficient that is. It’s been one of the most successful programs ever; 85 percent of the people in the U.S. recognize that label and they go to it.
Do you think that Climate Change should be part of the educational system?
Very much so. I think part of the challenge of explaining climate change is that it requires a level of science and a level of forward thinking and you’ve got to teach that to kids.
People didn’t have a sense of how dramatic climate change really is, and what it means for all of us. So that’s been a challenge. But what’s great about renewables is that when you put a solar panel on the roof of a school, you change the entire dynamic of education for the students. It’s hands-on.
When you wanted to get people active in the environmental world a while ago it was recycling, because you could do it yourself. Part of the challenge today is to make all of these things [affecting climate change] personal enough so that people can get engaged and get active, and feel like there are things we can do together. That’s the hump we need to cross in climate control and I think we’re doing that. I really do, I think people are getting active and engaged.
My sister the beekeeper says that bees are dying because we are using pesticides in the U.S. that are banned in Europe, and that one out of every three bites of food we eat requires pollination by bees.
The president just asked us to put together a task force on pollinators. It’s not as easy as saying it’s the result of a pesticide. We did take a look at what we call the neonicotinoid pesticides, which is the group that people are concerned about, and we did an entire re-look at how it should be used and we modified that just to make sure that it doesn’t have the direct impact [on bees]. But it’s way more than that. What we’re finding is that the bee population is facing a lot of stressors – one of which is loss of habitat – and the president has asked us to look at all of these stressors and to identify within the span of nine months to a year, what the United States can do to address the bee population. We’re taking it very seriously. It’s just that we’re not sure yet that the banning of this pesticide, as Europe has done, would be the appropriate response. It needs to be proven scientifically and it needs a more comprehensive look. So that’s what we’re involved in right now.
Does the EPA also oversee genetically modified foods (GMOs)?
There are a lot of genetically modified products on the market. Some states utilize them, some states develop their own rules around them, and we try to keep abreast of all of them. But there’s a lot going on. One of the biggest challenges that we have is just keeping up with the changing market and making sure that we’re doing the right kind of risk assessment in a timely way so we can make the decisions on it.
Europe has banned American apples because they are sprayed with diphenylamine (DPA), a substance that keeps them from turning brown. When was the last study done on DPA?
It’s something we are looking into. We have to approve any new pesticide that’s coming out, and the pesticides that are being used we have to take a look at their current use over a sequence and period of time, so that we can make sure they’re properly labeled and properly used.
Returning to the subject of natural habitats, I read an article in The New York Times about how in wildernesses, such as Joshua Tree National Park, the trees are gradually dying out because of climate change. Is that something that the EPA pays attention to?
Yes. That’s why the president has a cross agency office that gets together, so we understand what the challenges are and how we can impact those.
It’s clear that climate change is not only impacting public health, it’s impacting other species. It’s impacting trees, flora and fauna. It’s impacting the oceans. It has an impact on the jet stream. The changes that you can see, if we don’t pay attention, the changes that we will see, will be very dramatic. We’ve let it go long enough. It’s time for us to embrace the challenge. It’s time for us to act now.
How hard is it to be in public service in this era of social media? It seems to me a lot of politicians spend most of their time defending their positions or explaining quotes taken out of context?
I try to keep very positive about it, because I think I spoke earlier how honorable public service is. Every day I get up thinking that this is the best job ever, even when it’s difficult, because it’s an honor to do this job. And so while it is, no question, challenging, I’m not going to let these everyday challenges sway me from the vision and the job that I was put here to do. EPA is moving forward, we are under very close scrutiny but we’ll live up to that scrutiny and we’ll still make progress.
Thank you Administrator McCarthy.